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8 Limbs of Yog

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Artwork Deep Priya Cosmic Devi

That which is everywhere is not in space. That which is eternal is not in time. That is Yog.

The vision or awareness of Yog is not available to the ego-intellect-mind of a human being, because it exists prior to the manifestation of the universe. Some rare souls are born with perfect awareness, but for most human beings an unfoldment of consciousness is required.

Patañjali acknowledges the potentiality to attain this perfect state of awareness and freedom during our lifetime, and provides pristine and proven means to do so.

The quest for the Yog state is rooted in higher awareness, in which a clear intuition that there is something more than the normal waking state of consciousness is accessed. This is most readily discovered in meditation, but it may also be revealed as a spontaneous grace. Since Yog is our true nature, it can reveal itself at any time. But once it does, this is the starting point from where the yogi builds his practice. Having tasted this awareness of something more, something higher, he will observe that it does not stay with him, and will also recognise that certain actions and alignment of the attention are more favourable for this awareness to be experienced.

The practice of the Eight Limbs of Yog transforms the mind and makes it Aykaagr or concentrated, one-pointed, by unfolding stillness or Sthiti ~ a specific quality which is actually an alignment. Sthiti is much deeper than discipline: it comes from being immersed in the Source, knowing oneself as that free vastness, and not wanting to lose sight of it.

The aim or goal of the Eight Limbs of Yog ~ or Ashtaang Yog ~ is the unfoldment of Vivayk Khyaati. Vivayk Khyaati is the finest ability to discriminate between Self and non-Self, which leads to becoming established in the Self.

What is non-Self? The world around us, including our own body, mind, intellect and ego, is in a constant state of flux. Existing in time and space, defined by constant change, our experience of the world and our body-mind (which is the tool through which we experience the world), is what human beings call reality. It is not, however, what the ancient sages and saints came to know as Reality.

What is Self? Self is that which does not belong to the field of change: it is a vastness beyond compare, the very essence of anything that appears and disappears within the field of time and space ~ past, present, and future ~ that human beings mistakenly call reality. Self is the canvas on which the play and scenes of our incarnations are enacted.

Innumerable commentaries on Patañjali have offered diverse interpretations of the Eight Limbs of Yog. It is important not to limit them to a set of rules and regulations; and though they address, among other considerations, the field of behaviour, they are most certainly neither a religion nor a precept. The eight limbs can be compared to eight spokes of a wheel: all have their place for the wheel to turn, but Yog ~ the centre of the wheel, the hub ~ is where their true purpose is realized. Yog could be called the secret, ninth limb of Yog, the Self. The practice of Yog ~ which is the practice of being the Self ~ covers eight different aspects that include the complete range of human experience, leading to extremely subtle states of existence and awareness.

It would be easy to conclude that you have to achieve the first limb before you can access the second.  It is not really like that: all the levels are interrelated and constantly practised by the yogi in his or her effort to unfold the Vision of Yog. It is essential to understand that before birth we existed as Yog, Pure Existence. During the course of our life, we still are that same Pure Existence… but now invested in the field of change and somehow trapped in time and space, and in the end ~ with the dissolution of the body-mind ~ returning to that Pure Existence. It is not that we have to attain Pure Existence: we are Pure Existence, we have always been Pure Existence, and we will always be Pure Existence.

All that is required is for mind to realise it: then, perfect freedom is attained. That is what Patañjali calls Kaivalya, Liberation.

Because we have become identified as mind in the field of change and have forgotten our true nature, then for the mind existing in time and space, there is a gradual aspect that comes into play as the inner nervous system undergoes a deep transformation in a practice that becomes more and more subtle, more and more precise. But all aspects have to be practised constantly. This practice will unfold Vivayk Khyaati ~ the ability to know what is bound self, or identified mind, and what is free Self, Space.

Here, the eight limbs are described:

1) Yam consists of the regulation and practice of outward behaviour. It culminates in the mastery of aware, conscious behaviour, aligned with universal laws:

  1. Ahinsaa, or non-violence: the practice that ranges from the level of action where care is taken not to hurt any living creature, to the deepest level of non-violence where life is realized as one and the same in all;
  2. Satya, or non-deception: practised by not manipulating others to their detriment for personal benefit;
  3. Astayya, or non-stealing: practised by not depriving others of their property;
  4. Brahmacharya, or acting as Brahm: practised by not wasting the precious energy necessary to realisation (it implies a certain mastery over the senses). In certain cases, Brahmacharya is the actual choice of celibacy. A deeper meaning of Brahmacharya is: to be fulfilled within oneself while entering the field of action, and not being destabilised by looking for satisfaction in that outer field;
  5. Aparigrah, or frugality: practised by limiting the seeking and accumulation of possessions, which interfere with peace of mind.

2) Niyam consists of the regulation and practice of inner discipline and self-improvement. It culminates in self-awareness and the ability to remain aligned in one’s practice:

  1. Shauch: purification of the body and mind to prevent problems arising from this quarter;
  2. Santosh: contentment, or the conscious practice of remaining balanced and easy;
  3. Tap: dedicated efforts to evolve a higher state of consciousness;
  4. Swadhyaya: study for becoming aware of one’s own true nature, the Swa or Self. This includes study of any drawbacks interfering with this unfoldment;
  5. Ishwar Pranidhaan: the sense of unity with the Self or God, even while maintaining the identification with the body and the world.

3) Aasan consists of the unfoldment of ease and stability within the body, which culminates in the ability to sit at ease in meditation, without interference or disturbance from the body.

4) Praanaayaam consists of the unfoldment of ease and stability within the breath, which culminates in such a stability that it reveals the ability to direct one’s attention at will.

5) Pratyaahaar consists of stability of the mind in itself, where the pull of the senses does not function; it culminates in inner stillness with no interference from the senses.

[These five first limbs are considered the outer practice of Yog, which pave the way for the three last limbs, considered as the inner part of the practice, where the deepest transformation of the Chitt, or mind, takes place directly, in terms of the unfoldment of Vivayk.]

6) Dhaaranaa, or concentration, consists of the ability to remain focused. It is practised by bringing the attention onto a chosen point ~ for instance breath or Mantra ~ and returning to that point of focus whenever it is observed that that point got lost. This culminates in Dhyaan, or meditation.

7) Dhyaan, or meditation, the sustained flow of attention, consists of the practice of effortless concentration, sometimes with reversions back and forth to Dhaaranaa. This culminates in Samaadhi ~ the meditative absorption.

8) Samaadhi, meditative absorption, is the state where the mind is free from individual awareness.

In these last three aspects of the practice, enough stillness has been unfolded that the changing field as a whole has been condensed to three aspects of attention: attention applied, attention sustained, and attention dissolved into itself, free.

At this level of practice, the discrimination between Self and not-Self is practised in the most precise way. The discrimination is now between mind and Self. That too, the subtlest, most refined mind, sometimes called Sattwa. In this subtle practice, what is left of the mind is a sense of “I” having an experience: an experience of concentration, an experience of meditation that periodically merges into absorption in pure attention where there is no one left to have an experience of anything separate. In this way Vivayk gets unfolded, as this freedom from the mind is experienced directly, as pure experience, where no subject separate from any object remains.

As long as there is someone having an experience of something, the non-Self is said to be functioning: when pure absorption takes place, Self is revealed to Self.

It is essential to understand that the most important and precious part of the practice of Ashtaang Yog resides in the last three limbs. Though all aspects of life are important and to be taken in consideration by the yogi, it is only in Samaadhi that non-separation is experienced directly.

There, freedom is pure… but (there is a but): that freedom cannot be sustained in a non-purified intellect. The non-purified intellect will helplessly, again and again, seek release from agitation through investing itself in the field of change. Only the purified intellect has the open option to transform itself though an intelligent and sustained Saadhanaa. There is now a possibility of aware choice at every moment of life, of choosing Self. That results in ultimate freedom.

The practice of Yog does not start at the bottom of that ladder of eight limbs: it is most profound in Samaadhi… and Samaadhi will influence all the other limbs. Because Samaadhi provides the direct experience of Oneness, the level of behaviour is improved (Yam), useful self-knowledge is unfolded (Niyam), stability appears on the level of the body (Aasan), stability appears on the level of the Praan (Praanaayaam), stability appears on the level of the mind (Pratyahaar), the mind is now settled, free from the impact of agitation and distraction, then it becomes concentrated (Dhaaranaa), that concentration continues to deepen in meditation (Dhyaan), and flowers as the experience of Pure Space ~Yog ~ in Samaadhi, the state where the mind loses its individuality and is absorbed in its essence, the Self.

The journey goes on as the practice is sustained, and even Samaadhi ~ which is still a state of the mind ~ will culminate in simple Freedom, Kaivalya.

Thus Patañjali has clearly and precisely charted the course for a human being to follow on his journey back to the Source, his own true Self.  

Om tat sat


Deep Priya Somayog 8 limbs of yogDeep Priya Shakti Shyam is director of the Somayog Centre of IMI in Northern India. She guides students and teachers globally in a unique blend of traditional hatha yoga, somatics, Yog Darshan of Patanjali, and meditation. Find her on Facebook: Deep Priya


Featured Image © Deep Priya








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